This is not an easy story to tell.
Sometime on Monday, October 27, 2008 a young lobsterman went missing in the waters near Matinicus Island. Christopher Whitaker, 24, of Matinicus was last seen hauling from his open boat that day to the northeast of the island.
Later the same day, floating objects such as a toggle with a lobster measure, a pair of oil pants, a gas can and a lunch cooler were found, indicating that something was terribly wrong.
That’s about all we know.
As of this writing, our neighbor has not yet been found. His small boat, and with it hopefully an explanation of what happened, has not yet been found. Everybody on Matinicus sincerely hopes that before this is printed and in the reader’s hands, something will have changed…that he will be discovered, that some evidence of what took place that day will be found, that some sort of closure might be possible.
It could have been any of us.
Chris was doing what nearly every man on this island has done, or still does. He was doing what quite a few of the women and children have done. He was out hauling his traps. Chris represents us all, and in this we are reminded of the risks inherent in our lives. That doesn’t really help.
It does, however, mean that this situation impacts everybody. Of course nobody can put themselves in the shoes of Chris’s family and loved ones, yet there are others here who have been through tragedies, others who have lost children and friends so very young, and others who have lost family members of any age to the sea. More to the point, this reminder that most people on this island have been or likely will be at risk in the same way makes this tragedy both personal and shared; this is not uniquely the reality of just the one family.
The search, then, was not just the business of the authorities.
As has always been the case, everybody who works on the water is acutely aware of the need to drop everything and turn immediately to search and rescue when the need arises. This is not a Matinicus phenomenon; fishermen and watermen everywhere will do the same. I have seen it here numerous times in twenty-plus years, I have seen it in South Thomaston, it happens in every coastal town in every corner of the world. There are few better at, and none more willing to devote themselves to serious, organized Search and Rescue than the commercial fishermen of Maine.
Lavon “Biscuit” Ames, who was the first to discover floating items on the water that afternoon, did a brief preliminary search of the area hoping to find somebody swimming. As soon as he picked up the VHF radio, however, and word spread, this became every fisherman’s job. “I’d say we had about 98 percent turnout of people coming to help,” said Ames, “Everybody who could do anything turned out.”
The Matinicus fishermen had some considerable professional help. The Marine Patrol worked for many days, and the State Police dive team was here. The U.S. Coast Guard came with three vessels, and with aircraft from Air Station Cape Cod. Side-scan sonar was used to search; a P-3 Orion from the Brunswick Naval Air Station searched the bottom at night with sophisticated heat-seeking capability. We are sincerely grateful for everything those agencies have done to help.
Penobscot Island Air pilots, and private pilot and Matinicus lobsterman Vance Bunker searched the area with their own aircraft.
Islanders were stationed out on ledges and small uninhabited islands to walk the perimeters and comb the bushes, to search rock piles and small forgotten places. Of course, all of Chris’ gear was hauled, as must always be done when a fisherman is lost and presumed overboard. That job, most essential, is perhaps psychologically the most difficult.
The civilian effort was organized, thoughtful, and extremely thorough. Bad weather in the days following Chris’ disappearance determined what could or could not be done. For some of the fishermen, this was not their first search experience. Most everybody I’ve spoken with describes having participated in the search one way or another, either as part of an organized group, going out by boat or on foot to walk every inch of shoreline, or by doing so independently, privately, taking binoculars and lights and just walking, hoping to see what nobody ever really wants to see.
The people of Matinicus (or any community that lives so intimately with the ocean) cannot stay home and say “it’s not my job.”
Islanders who are used to walking their dogs along the shoreline tell of constant vigilance, continuous searching even weeks later, whether they mean to or not. It cannot be helped. People can’t mindlessly go to the beach now just to look for sea glass or to exercise the mutt; nobody can relax. This is serious business. It might have been anybody. As it happened, it was Chris.
As I write, it has been three weeks. I have delayed putting any of this on paper in hopes that one more day would bring some facts, some small clue, or maybe even Chris himself, telling one hell of a wild story. Three weeks is a long time, but the searching goes on. May he be at peace.